Hartpury got the win they needed to keep within touching distance of leaders Richmond with three rounds of the National League One season remaining. The gap remains ten points, but Hartpury get the chance to make major inroads when Richmond visit the College next weekend.
They also recorded their first ever victory over Rosslyn Park, who themselves finished as runners-up last season, although the score-line and the statistics from the game are somewhat at odds with the actual events on the pitch.
Hartpury largely controlled this game in terms of both possession and territory, but failed to turn that advantage into scores whilst their visitors, on the back foot for much of the match, somehow outscored their hosts by five tries to one.
In the end, for all their ascendancy, Hartpury were indebted to a perfect kicking performance from fly-half Gareth Thompson, whose nine successful strikes enabled them to get the result that their overall performance deserved.
The game was played in slightly squally conditions, a beautiful spring morning having given way to a showery, blustery afternoon.
The College were missing a number of regular faces, with three players on duty for England Students in Dublin to add to an injury list which speaks of a long, attritional season.
Many of the match-day squad had taken part in the previous week’s comprehensive win at Loughborough and there was a welcome return to the bench for young centre Elliot Creed who has missed a large chunk of the season through illness.
Hartpury started brightly, but received an early warning of Park’s potency in the ‘red zone’ as early as the fourth minute.
A penalty conceded at the breakdown was spiralled deep into the home 22 by Park player-coach Scott Sneddon and, from the resulting line out, the visiting pack took over. Although the initial thrust was held, Park recycled for hooker Charlie Piper to finish.
For the following 35 minutes, play largely took place in the visitors half. Hartpury, as in most weeks, were able to produce phase after phase, but on this occasion were unable to fashion clear cut try-scoring opportunities, despite going close many times.
Great credit goes to the College forwards as they took the game to a large and experienced visiting pack. Locks Ben Chan and James Voss both carried well while the set-piece was generally its normal, effective self.
The visitors, pinned in their own territory, had to survive as best they could and penalties inevitably followed. Thompson landed his first three kicks to put his side in front, but all attempts to create a clear lead were thwarted by determined, if occasionally stretched, defence from Park.
There was sense of irony when a rare Park incursion brought another driven try, this time for prolific Number 8 and skipper, Hugo Ellis.
Hartpury were quickly back on the attack before another period of sustained pressure came to an end when the ball, illegally it seemed, was knocked out of the hands of lively scrum-half Harry Cochrane and cleared down-field.
To add insult to injury, Park and Ellis used the opportunity to grab another close range try and home supporters could have been forgiven for wondering whether it was going to be ‘one of those days’. Thompson, though, remained unflappable and his fourth kick closed it back up to 12-15 at half-time.
Although trailing on the scoreboard, the students had plenty of reason for optimism going into the second half and the following quarter proved to be their most productive period of the game.
In the 50th minute, after again being camped in their opponents half, another Thompson penalty tied things up, before the hosts finally cut through the stubborn Park defence.
Voss took a lovely ball off the top of a line out before centre George Boulton made the all-important break, cutting inside and carving a big hole through the defence before finding back-row forward Jake Polledri. He made further ground and was able to off-load to the supporting Cochrane, who finished joyfully under the posts.
Cochrane has taken his chance well after starting the season as, arguably, third or fourth choice scrum half and his all-round performance here made him good value for his man-of-the-match award. He was pushed all the way by open-side James Stephenson, whose work-rate both with and without the ball was phenomenal and, of course, Thompson.
The try seemed to shake Park and they had a ragged 10 minutes during which two further kicks from the fly-half had the home team looking comfortable at 28-15.
But Park are nothing if not resilient. Another penalty was kicked to the Hartpury 22 and this time the drive was surely allowed to travel too far by Hartpury before Ellis completed his hat-trick.
Thompson’s ninth, and final, kick appeared to have settled the game for the hosts, but there was still time for a late scare as winger Adam Field latched on to a grubber behind the home defence, Scott Sneddon landing his only successful kick of the day with the touchline conversion.
Results elsewhere mean that the situation among the top five remains tight, although Richmond are still clear favourites to win the division after a home win over Loughborough. Ampthill and Blackheath stay hot on Hartpury’s heels after away wins at Ionians and Fylde respectively. Plymouth recovered from last week’s set-back by beating Wharfedale in Devon.
Henley’s relegation was confirmed by their big defeat at Esher while Cinderford’s recent revival ended with a 45-25 defeat at Blaydon.
Hartpury’s next two games, with a visit to Plymouth following the Richmond clash, are immense.
Hartpury: Forrester, Robinson, Eves, Boulton, Mikalcius, G Thompson (Con 52, Pens 14, 19, 21, 39, 50, 60, 62, 75), Cochrane (Try 52); Merrey, Tanner, W Thompson, Voss, Chan, Stephenson, Polledri, Oakley
Bench: Taylor, Wrafter, Clarey, Evans, Creed
Rosslyn Park: Whitely, Vincent, Kohler, Hawke, Field (Try 79), Sneddon (Con 79), Gash; Lilley, Piper (Try 4), Lovell, Inglis, Boyle, Milne, Shires, Ellis (Tries 25, 35, 68)
Bench: Gleave, Nwakor, MacFarlane, Whelan, Edmondson
Referee: J Makepeace